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What Maria Sharapova's Return Means for the WTA

Maria Sharapova is back from a 15-month doping ban, and given the current landscape of the WTA Tour, she may be back on top of women's tennis sooner rather than later.
Photo by EPA

Last Wednesday, after a 15-month doping suspension for taking the recently banned substance meldonium at last year's Australian Open, Maria Sharapova finally returned to professional tennis action.

Her comeback was anything but under-the-radar.

She received a wild card from the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, an indoor clay-court tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, that she's won three times. Organizers arranged the schedule so that her first match could start midweek, since she wasn't even permitted to be on the tournament grounds until Tuesday's clock struck midnight. Like all players who take Center Court in Stuttgart, she arrived to a burst of smoke, a booming emcee, and a literal spotlight.


(This might be the time to note that Porsche isn't just the sponsor of Stuttgart; it's also one of the many sponsors of Sharapova.)

Read More: The Case for Ending the Sports War on Doping

Sharapova won her first match back 7-5, 6-3 over Roberta Vinci, notching 11 aces, 39 winners, and endless fist pumps. She was understandably rusty at the start of the match, but by the end she was showing flashes of the form that has won her five major titles over the past 13 years. She followed that up with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over her Russian compatriot Ekaterina Makarova, then beat Anett Kontaveit 6-3, 6-4 in the quarters. She looked title-bound until she lost a set and a break lead in the semifinals to Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic to end her run on Saturday.

Despite the defeat, Sharapova could be back at the top of the game sooner rather than later, particularly given the current WTA landscape.

After all, her most daunting opponent, Serena Williams, recently announced that she is pregnant and will be off the Tour for the rest of the year. No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber is struggling. Marquee next-generation players such as Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova are having trouble finding week-in, week-out consistency. Two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka is still a couple months away from launching her own comeback following pregnancy and motherhood, and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova is still off the tour recovering from an injury she suffered when she was stabbed by an intruder in her home last December.


In fact, the biggest factor in how quickly Sharapova can return to the top is not any one player, but rather the tennis establishment running the tournaments she needs to play in.

Tennis rankings work on a 52-week cycle, and since Sharapova hadn't played tennis in the last year, she didn't have a ranking headed into Stuttgart. She was only able to compete in the event because the tournament awarded her a wild card—one of just a few entry spots in every tennis draw that tournament directors are permitted to hand out at their discretion, regardless of the player's ranking. Many players on both the men's and women's tennis tours, however, think that because Sharapova is coming back from a drug ban, she shouldn't be on the receiving end of such gifts.

"A player who has tested positive should start from scratch like everyone else and win her place back," French WTA player Alize Cornet told reporters. "You shouldn't roll out the red carpet for her."

"It's like if you give a sweet to a kid who did bad things," French ATP player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said. "He's going to do it again."

In Stuttgart, Sharapova was asked about the comments of her peers.

"I'm being offered wild cards by the tournament directors and I'm accepting them to be able to compete in the draw," she said. "I'm not receiving a wild card to receive a trophy and a golden platter."

Sharapova is not sorry. She served her punishment—a 15-month ban, reduced from two years on appeal—and maintains that she was not properly notified that meldonium had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned substances list. Meldonium is common in Eastern Europe, and Sharapova says she began taking it ten years ago for a heart condition.


Sharapova at the press conference to announce her failed drug test last year. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This would all be a lot smoother if there were an apology tour—if she cried, if she humbled herself, if she returned to the tennis world begging for forgiveness, groveling at the feet of sponsors and fans and tournament directors and her peers. But that's not her style, and it never has been. She's an in-your-face type.

On the court, she is known for her line-crushing cross-court strokes, her two first serves, and her, well, aggressive volume.

Off the court, there are photoshoots, the Sugarpova brand, and plenty of red carpets. She's the type of player to host her own impromptu press conference to announce a positive drug test, and to mark her return with a spread in Vogue. She was the highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 straight years according to Forbes, until Serena Williams finally out-earned her just last year.

It's not a surprise that her competitors are against her getting wild cards. She hasn't exactly built up a mountain of goodwill throughout the years. She's not friendly with them in the locker room, and is never shy to snipe back if she feels she's being attacked. She is the living, breathing embodiment of "I'm not here to make friends."

In 2012, Polish player Agnieszka Radwanska complained about Sharapova's grunt at the Australian Open after she suffered a loss. When told of Radwanska's remarked, Sharapova quipped, "Isn't she back in Poland already?"

Most infamously, she went after Serena Williams in a press conference two years ago after the 23-time champion made thinly veiled comments about Sharapova and her then-boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov in a Rolling Stone profile.


"If Serena wants to talk about something personal, she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend, who is married, who is getting a divorce and has kids, and not draw attention to other things," said Sharapova, referring to Williams' romance with her French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.

There's a saying: the opposite of hate isn't love, it's apathy. You might be rooting for Sharapova, you might be rooting against her, but the thing is, you're rooting either way. She's both controversial and a champion. People love those things individually; together, they're almost irresistible. It's easy to dismiss Sharapova as tennis's TMZ fodder and little else, and people have been trying to put her in that box her entire career. Given that she and Williams are the two biggest stars of the sport, their resumes get compared often. It is not a favorable comparison for Sharapova. But five major titles is proof that she has often been able to find her best tennis in the biggest moments, and her previous comeback from shoulder surgery in 2009 proves that she has the tenacity and determination to climb back up to the top of the rankings.

And if you thought she was just going to spend this time off building up her candy empire and working on her autobiography, well, you'd be partly right—but she also worked really hard at keeping up with her tennis game.

At her very first practice session in Stuttgart, she was erasing doubts.


"Twenty minutes into the hitting session it was clear that Sharapova had not lost anything with respect to her game, and in fact looked to have added a lower toss on her serve, a more fluid motion through that shot, as well as improved footwork on her volleys," WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen noted. "Heads turned amongst the early-bird voyeurs: Sharapova looks sharp."

Sharapova is currently the oddsmakers' favorite to win the French Open, a tournament she's won twice in the last five years. But this takes us back to the initial issue: the fact that she needs help even getting into the tournament.

Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2015. Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Sharapova has already received wild cards to the next two big clay-court events in Madrid and Rome, but the French Open has not announced its decision yet. While there are business reasons for WTA tournaments to give Sharapova a wild card, and she's definitely a draw, majors aren't as dependent upon individual players for attention.

She still has time to get her ranking high enough to get into the Wimbledon main draw on her own, but the French Open main draw is being set using this week's rankings. Sharapova is currently ranked No. 262 thanks to her semifinal run at Stuttgart, but only the top 104 in the rankings receive direct entry into tennis majors. At this point, she still needs assistance getting into the French Open qualifying tournament, which usually gives players ranked in the top 200 direct entry. Had Sharapova reached the final or won in Stuttgart, she would have made the cut on her own, but now the decision is out of her hands.


It seems like a no-brainer for the French Open to give a two-time former champion and one of the biggest stars in the sport a wild card. After all, Sharapova served her punishment, and a 15-month ban is a significant one for a violation that, ultimately, wasn't all that scandalous to begin with. Many of the French players, however, take a hard line when it comes to doping of any kind, as they have made quite clear to the press, and the tournament does not want to seem as if it is condoning cheating.

Roland Garros will make its announcement on May 16 on television, and nobody is going to know about wild cards before then.

"There is no reason why we should make an exception for Maria Sharapova, there is no reason why we should announce a wild card before the others," French tennis federation president Bernard Giudicell said.

Whether the French Open decides to award Sharapova a wild card to the French Open qualifying tournament, to award her a wild card into the main draw, or to award her no wild cards at all, people will be upset. When it comes to Sharapova, there's no way to satisfy everyone.

One thing is for sure, though—she's not bothered.

"I can't control what people say, and I never have," she said at Stuttgart. "The only thing I can control is what I do out there. I've always preferred to walk the walk, and I've done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world."

Yeah, she's definitely back.

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